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Motoring: Mercedes Benz A-Class - 1997

The first generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W168) was introduced in 1997 and a redesign (W169) appeared in 2004. It is available as a three or five-door hatchback. Production of the W168 A-Class began in 1997. It was also the first front wheel drive passenger car from Mercedes-Benz. Its front engine, front wheel drive layout was quite unusual for Mercedes. To date, more than one million units have been sold worldwide. One innovation of the W168 was a frontal-impact absorption system called the "Sandwich" (see patents DE4326 9 and DE4400132 in the name of Mercedes-Benz). In the event of a violent frontal impact, the engine and transmission would slide underneath the floor below the pedals rather than entering the passenger compartment.

The somewhat ugly W168 became infamous in 1997 after flipping over during the traditional "moose test" performed by the Swedish automobile publication Teknikens Vorld (see story below), resulting in being nicknamed the MTF (Moose Test Failoer). According to the report, the W168 overturned when maneuvering to avoid the "moose". Mercedes initially denied the problem, but then took the surprising step of recalling all units sold to date (2,600) and suspending distribution until the problem was solved by adding electronic stability control and modifying the suspension.

This marked the world premiere of stability control in a small car. Nevertheless, the W168 A-Class was voted the worst-handling car in Britain in the Top Gear Survey 2007 (completed by owners of the vehicles). As a result of the suspension stiffening described above, the ride on the W168 is very firm; this combined with the short wheelbase makes this car very jittery over rough surfaces. This is not a problem with the long wheelbase version of the car.

The Moose Test Failer

If you were to ask (and I did at the Sydney Motor Show when it was released) why the original Mercedes A-Class is so tall and, well ... ugly, the sales staff will tell you that there has to be some sacrifices if you want the safest small car in the world. That's not quite so. One of the hazards of driving in Scandinavian countries is that country roads are often populated by moose, the avoidance of which is a survival skill everyone must learn, be it a driver or a car designer. Impacting one of those hulking critters at highway speed has been known to shorten many a human life and for this reason the Moose-Avoidance test was developed. (The Moose-Avoidance test is when a driver simulates an emergency situation by abruptly crossing two lanes at about 60kph).

When Mercedes was debuting their new A-class sedan in Sweden, journalists performed the moose avoidance test, but much to their surprise, the only thing the test car avoided was staying on its wheels. The sedan flipped over onto its roof as it plowed through cones marking out the course. Fortunately no one was injured.

It left Mercedes with egg on its face, not only because they were promoting the A-Class as a car which set a new standard in small car safety, it was the first car in 20 years to fail the test. Mercedes initially dismissed the event, but when 2,000 orders for the A-class sedan were cancelled, the development department was sent back to work on modifying the A-class sedan so that its wasn't so top heavy.

The changes included lowering of the engine, modified springs and shocks, stabilizer bars added to the front and rear axles and wider tyres. The modifications fixed the problem but cost Mercedes millions of dollars and left the A-Class with the nickname initials MTF (moose test failer) by the world's motoring press. So when they try and tell you the A Class looks so top-heavy ugly for safety reasons, just smile and know they are trying to pull your leg.

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